Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mary & James Farmer, Axe Murderers - 1909

FULL TEXT: Auburn, N. Y., March 29.—Murmuring a prayer for her soul, Mrs. Mary Farmer was quietly led to the electric chair in Auburn prison shortly after 6 o’clock this morning and executed for the killing of Mrs. Mary Brennan at Brownville last April.

The execution of Mrs. Farmer’s second infliction of the death penalty on a woman by electricity in this stale was effected without sensational incidents. Five women, two of whom were prison attendants witnessed the death of Mrs. Farmer. Father Hickey, spiritual adviser of the condemned woman, following the execution gave out a statement signed by Mrs. Farmer, in which she declared that her husband, James Farmer, was entirely innocent and knew nothing of the crime until after it had been committed.

~ Procession to Death Chair. ~

Led by Father Hickey and with Mrs. Dunnigan and Mrs. Gorman the two women attendants who have been with her constantly since she was brought to Auburn prison, Mrs. Farmer waxed unfalteringly to the death chair, her eyes were half closed and clasping a crucifix in her hands. As she was being strapped in the chair Father Hickey stood at her side and offered prayers for the dying.

Dr. John Gerin, the prison physician, said that the woman was dead after the first shock, but as there was still a tremor of muscular reaction two succeeding contacts were given. State Electrician Davis said 1,840 volts and 7 1/2 ampheres was the strength of, the current that passed through the woman’s body.

After Warden Benham had announced that the physicians had pronounced Mrs. Farmer dead. Dr. Edward Spitzka of Philadelphia and Dr. Charles of the pathological institute at Wards Island, N. Y., performed the autopsy.

~ Spent the Night in Prayer~

All night long the wretched woman had prayed within her cell on the second tier on the woman’s department in the condemned row, after she had bade farewell to her husband.

Separated by steel bars and an intervening screen, husband and wife spent their final hours together in quiet conversation.

The final word was spoken, a last good-bye, the weeping husband returned to his cell and the hapless woman was led down the narrow corridor. In the pale ochre light of the corridor the woman and priest prayed together, the last sacrament was administered, and Mrs. Farmer said she was not afraid to die.

~ Spectators Were Few. ~

Mrs. Farmer was dressed in a plain black waist and shirt. Her hair was brushed back from her forehead and fell in two braids. Two or three locks were cut from the scalp so that the electrode might be properly adjusted, and the woman attendants slit the left side of the skirt as far as the knee and cut the stocking. None except those having official invitations were admitted to the execution. The three witnesses were Dr. H. M. Westfall of Moravia, N. Y., Miss Agnes Baird of Troy, N.Y., and Miss Margaret T. Byrne of Auburn. Miss Baird and Miss Byrne of Auburn. Miss Baird and Miss Byrne are nurses. When all was in readiness the witnesses were formed in line after being cautioned against any demonstration and led into the death chamber.

State Electrician Davis tested the dynamos and wires leading to the death chamber. Everything was found to be in working order. Warden Benham nodded to Captain Patterson. There was a low knock at the street door, the door was opened by some one within, and the wretched woman was let in the priest led the way, offering an almost inaudible prayer, while just behind him came Mary Farmer. Her hands clasped a crucifix and she murmured until the end came:

~ Last Murmur for Mercy. ~

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Have mercy on my soul”

It might have been only a few seconds before the straps were adjusted, though it seemed an interminable period. The two women attendants stood by the wall and the two nurses and Dr. Westfall ranged themselves in front of the black-gowned figure while Captain Patterson adjusted the leg electrode. The rubber mask was adjusted over the eyes and the head electrode was attached. A word from the state electrician, and the attendants, nuses and Warden Benham stepped back from the thick rubber mat upon which the death chair is placed.

The hand of State Electrician Davis traced a slow arch with the switch behind the curtain. A half spoken prayer was halted as the condemned woman convulsed in the leather harness that bound her to the chair. A woman attendant covered her face with her hands. Only the clicking of the tightening straps and the murmur of dynamos in an adjusting room could be heard.

~ Three Currents Applied. ~

The first contact lasted a full minute, the voltage starting at 1,840 and being gradually lowered to 200, then raised again to the full limit of 1,840 volts. The current was applied at 6:05 o’clock. The current was shut off, and a strange sound – half moan and half murmur – came from the woman’s lips. Dr. Gerin and Dr. Spitzka applied the stethoscope to the heart while Electrician Davis felt the artery in the neck. Muscular action was noted by the physicians stepped forward and applied the test to determine if life still remained in the limp figure in the chair. For the third time the static electrician sent the current through the body.

The woman was then pronounced dead, and Dr. Gerin pronounced dead, and Dr. Gerin directed the prison attendants to remove the body to the autopsy room.

~ Husband Prayed in His Cell. ~

Locked in his cell in a far-away corner of the prison, Jim Farmer, the husband, prayed during the hour of his wife’s execution, she had told him she had to die at dawn and that she had made a statement that he was innocent of the crime. The man verged on collapse from grief, and he frequently gave way to tears. The husband will not be taken back to the “death row” until Wednesday morning.

The witness sheet was signed in the warden’s office, a file of witnesses, unstrung and nervous, passed out from the main prison gate, and the official proceedings of Mary Farmer’s execution were over.

The physicians report that the autopsy disclosed that Mrs. Farmer was normal in every respect and that the brain shoed no lesions that would indicate a criminal tendency.

~ Story of the Crime. ~

Mrs. Mary Farmer is the second woman to meet death in the electric chair. The crime for which she was executed and for which her husband, James B. Farmer, is also under sentence of death, was the murder of Mrs. Sarah Brennan, a neighbor, in the village of Brownville, Jefferson county, about four miles from the city of Watertown, on Thursday, April 23, 1908. The body of Mrs. Brennan was found on the following Monday in a trunk owned by Mrs. Farmer and in her possession. Mrs. Farmer and her husband were given separate trials, and although the evidence was circumstantial, both were convicted and sentenced to be electrocuted. Mrs. Farmer’s counsel attempted at the trial to establish that she was insane and irresponsible for the crime, but the court of appeals declared that it was “clearly a deliberate and intentional act,” and that there were no circumstances that “mitigated against its heinousness.”

~ Came from Ireland. ~

Mrs. Farmer came to this country from Ireland in 1900, and worked tor a time as a domestic in Binghamton, going from there to Buffalo where she married James D. Farmer in 1904. Early in 1905 they moved to Brownville where they remained for a few months at one of Farmer’s relatives, after which they kept boarders in an adjoining village. In May, 1907, they moved into a portion of an old building formerly used as a hotel in a part of Brownsville known as Paddy Hill.

Mrs. Brennan and her husband Patrick, lived in a house nearby which they had occupied for twenty years, and which was owned by Mrs. Brennan. Mrs. Farmer became a frequent caller at the Brennan home, and Mrs. Brennan occasionally called on the farmers. Mrs. Brennan kept the deed to her property, insurance papers and a savings bank book in  black pocketbook in a tin case in her bedroom.

~ Impersonated by Mrs. Brennan. ~

Months before the homicide, in October, 1907. Mrs. Farmer went in a lawyer’s office in Watertown, produced a deed of the Brennan property and, impersonating Mrs. Brennan had the deed transferred to James D. Farmer, signing the name “Sarah Brennan.” The deed was returned from the clerk’s office to James D. Farmer on Nov. 26, and on Jan. 7, 1908, Mrs. Farmer and her husband went to another lawyer in Watertown and had the deed drawn to Peter J. Farmer, a child, who had been born to them the preceding Sept. 2

On the day of the crime Mrs. Brennan’s husband left early for his work, his wife telling him she was going to visit a dentist in Watertown. Between 9 and 10 o’clock she was seen to leave her home and enter the Farmer house. She was never seen alive again. Early the same day Mrs. Farmer took her baby to the home of a neighbor and left it, saying she was going up town. Between that time and this time Mrs. Brennan went to the Farmer house Mrs. Farmer passed back and forth between the two houses several times. Shortly after noon she went for her baby and arranged for a young daughter of the neighbor to assist her in caring for the child.

~ The Papers Secured. ~

The girl, upon her arrival, found farmer and his wife at lunch and later he left for the home of his sister, where he was laying a walk. Soon after Mrs. Farmer went into the Brennan House, she returned and told the girl to go for her husband, but Farmer refused to return home. Mrs. Farmer then went to the sister’s home with a package, which proved to be the black oilcloth pocketbook of Mrs. Brennan, containing the deeds, insurance and other papers, and said she wanted to leave it for awhile.

Brennan upon his return from work that afternoon was unable to get into his house. The keys which his wife was in the habit of leaving were not in their accustomed place. While he was trying to get in he saw Farmer standing nearby, who remarked: “Brennan, don’t you know I bought this place?” Brennan finally secured a ladder, entered ma second-story window and occupied the house that night. The next morning he went to work as usual.

~ Brennan Ordered From Home. ~

Mrs. Farmer that same morning went to the sister’s house, took Mrs. Brennan’s oilcloth pocketbook from where it had been hidden in a chair, and with her husband went to Watertown where they had an attorney prepare papers ordering Brennan off the premises, which were served on him that night.

Brennan went to Watertown and made inquiries for his wife but failed to and her and Saturday morning left for his work as usual, after spending the night in the house. He returned home, however, later and found Mrs. Farmer and her husband occupying the house. Mrs. Farmer told him that so long as he used the Farmers well he could stay, Brennan then reported the matter to the district attorney’s office and engaged a constable to search for his wife.

~ Moved Into the Brennan House. ~

The Farmers, in the meantime, with others who were induced to help by free access to ale which was furnished, commenced moving their goods to the Brennan house. In one of the back rooms was a large black trunk which Mrs. Farmer asked one or the men to tie with a rope. Mrs. Farmer lifted the ends of the trunk while a clothes line was wrapped around it and tied securely. Mrs. Farmer said “she had stuff in there she didn’t want broken” and had two men carry it to the Brennan house while she walked along and directed where it should be placed in a back room where other things were piled upon it. She then proceeded to do some washing.

When the constable who bad been employed by Brennan went to the house, and asked where Mrs. Brennan was Mrs. Farmer told him she had “gone to Watertown to get her teeth fixed.” She sent for the parish priest, told him a similar story and had him bless the home.

~ Body of Mrs. Brennan Found. ~

On the following Monday the sheriff with several others again visited the Farmers and asked Mrs. Farmer to produce the deeds, and after some delay she pulled the black oilcloth envelope from a cradle and showed the papers. Then a search of the house was begun. Inquiry was made in regard to the trunk tied with a clothes line, whereupon Mrs. Farmer denied that she owned it, saying it belonged to her husband, and he with an oath said it did not belong to him. The rope was removed, the lock broken, and in the trunk the sheriff found the body of Mrs. Brennan fully dressed. The head and face were horribly mutilated by many blows from a, blunt instrument, but the body was not injured. The turban hat which the woman wore was missing, but the burned wire framework of a hat similar to the one she wore was found in Mrs. Farmer’s stove.

~ Murderous Pair Arrested. ~

Mrs. Farmer and her husband were arrested charged with the crime which the woman at first stoutly defied. Then she stated that Mrs. Brennan was in her house and stood by the door looking out of the window and that she stepped up behind her and hit her with an axe. Subsequently she said it to the sheriff that she had not told the truth; that “Jim” did it. She said Mrs. Brennan had been with her uptown and that when they came back “Jim” was angry because she had left her baby at a neighbor’s. She said she then went for the baby and on her return “Jim” was just putting the body in the trunk.

At the jail Mrs. Farmer made another statement in which she said that Mrs. Brennan came to her house and said she was not feeling well. She said that Mrs. Brennan said “she would give anything if she would take that old axe that laid there and knock her brains out and I said all right, here she goes. A takes [sic] the ax and kills her.”

~ Killed as She Sat in Chair. ~

She said then she put the body in the trunk, washed up things that were bloody and burned up the things from which she could not remove the blood. She said Mrs. Brennan was sitting down in a chair by the window when she killed her.

The cases of Mrs. Farmer and her husband were appealed to the court of appeals which has yet to determine the husband’s case. Mrs. Farmer’s conviction was affirmed and E. R. Wilcox, her counsel, asked the governor to appoint a commission to examine into the woman’s mental condition, expressing the belief that the woman was insane.

[“Mary Farmer Pays Penalty For Her Crime – Second Woman to Die in Electric Chair Executed in Auburn Prison. – Spent Her Last Night On Earth In Prayer – Scenes and Incidents In The Death Chamber – Of Horrible Deed.” Syndicated, The Salt Lake Herald (Ut.), Mar. 30, 1909, p. 3]



Mary Farmer's confession was as follows:

"My husband, James D. Farmer, never had any hand in Sarah Brenan's death nor never knew anything about it till the trunk was opened. I never told him anything what happened. I feel he has been terribly wronged. James D. Farmer was not at home the day the affair happened; neither did James D. Farmer ever put a hand on Sarah Brenan after her death. Again I wish to say as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is entirely innocent of the death of Sarah Brenan, that he knowingly had no part in any plans that led to it, and that he knew nothing whatever about it."

(Signed) "MARY H. FARMER."
"Subscrbed and sworn to before me this 25th day of March, 1909.
"Notary public, Cayuga county."

[“Woman Tries To Save Husband,” syndicated, New Castle News (Pa.), Mar. 29, 1909, p. 1]


[Headline in lead image taken from: “Mrs. Mary Farmer’s Crime. - Killed Mrs. Sarah Brennan with Axe end Hid Her Body in Trunk.” New York Times (N.Y.), Mar. 30, 1909, p. 6]















For more Violence by Women cases involving axes and hatchets, see: Give ‘Em the Axe

[7771-2/18/19; 9310-3/5/21]


  1. Replies
    1. He was found not guilty. Died in 1934 a few days after suffering a heart attack.